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by E - The Environmental Magazine

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I heard someone say that the environmental benefits of natural gas for electricity generation were overstated and that it is not as green-friendly as the industry would have us believe. What is your take on this? -- D. Montcalm, Brewster, NY

In our increasingly carbon-constrained world, natural gas (also known as methane) does keep coming up as a potentially cleaner fuel source for electricity generation than coal, currently the nation’s primary source of electrical power. Natural gas advocates argue that it generates 50 percent fewer greenhouse gases than coal when burned. And since natural gas is more widely available than ever, thanks to newer more efficient—though in some cases environmentally damaging—extraction techniques, some think it should be playing a larger role in a transition away from coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Today over 50 percent of electricity generated in the
U.S. comes from coal; natural gas accounts for less than 20 percent.

But scientists aren’t so sure natural gas should play any part in solving the climate crisis. A 2007 lifecycle analysis of natural gas production, distribution and consumption found that when one factors in the total emissions associated with not only the end use of natural gas but also its extraction and distribution—much of it can leak when it is pulled out of the ground and then piped to power plants and other customers—it doesn’t seem so much cleaner than coal after all.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that loose pipe fittings and intentional venting for safety purposes on natural gas lines cause annual greenhouse gas emissions rivaling that produced by 35 million cars each year. The World Bank estimates that emissions from natural gas extraction operations alone account for over a fifth of the atmosphere’s total load of climate-changing methane.

“When scientists evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions of energy sources over their full lifecycle and incorporate the methane emitted during production, the advantage of natural gas holds true only when it is burned in more modern and efficient plants,” reports Abrahm Lustgarten on the investigative news website, ProPublica. “But roughly half of the 1,600 gas-fired power plants in the
United States operate at the lowest end of the efficiency spectrum.”

He adds that, while the median
U.S. gas-fired power plant emits 40 percent fewer greenhouse gases than a typical coal plant, some 800 inefficient plants offer only a 25 percent improvement. The fact that methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas—the EPA says methane is 20 times more effective trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) —makes it even less appealing as a replacement for coal.

“The problem is you build a gas plant for 40 years,” James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest power companies in the
U.S., told ProPublica. “That’s a long bridge. What if, with revelations around methane emissions, it turns out to be only a 10 or 20 percent reduction of carbon from coal? If that’s true, gas is not the panacea.” Rogers himself is an advocate for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

But with the Obama administration still keen on mining domestic natural gas reserves versus upping our reliance on foreign oil, natural gas will likely continue to play a role in the energy mix for some time yet.

CONTACTS: ProPublica, www.propublica.org; Duke Energy, www.duke-energy.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t it a waste that we buy water in plastic bottles when it is basically free out of our taps? Even health food stores, which should know better, sell it like crazy. When did Earth’s most abundant and free natural resource become a commercial ‘beverage’? -- A. Jacobs, via e-mail

Bottled water has been a big-selling commercial beverage around the world since the late 1980s. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global bottled water consumption has more than quadrupled since 1990. Today Americans consume over 30 billion liters of water out of some 50 billion (mostly plastic) bottles every year. The Beverage Marketing Association reports that in 2008 bottled water comprised over 28 percent of the
U.S. liquid refreshment beverage market. The only bottled drinks Americans consume more of are carbonated sodas like Coke and Pepsi.

And frankly, yes, it is a ridiculous waste that we obtain so much of our drinking water this way when it is free flowing and just as good if not better for you right out of the tap. According to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), some 2.7 million tons of petroleum-derived plastic are used to bottle water around the world every year. “Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000
U.S. cars for a year,” says EPI researcher Emily Arnold. And just because we can recycle these bottles does not mean that we do: The Container Recycling Institute reports that 86 percent of plastic water bottles in the U.S. end up as garbage or litter.

The financial costs to consumers are high, too: According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), bottled water costs up to 1,900 times more than tap water. And the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that 90 percent or more of the money consumers shell out for it pays for everything but the water itself: bottling, packaging, shipping, marketing, other expenses—and, of course, profits.

EWG is particularly appalled at the lack of transparency by leading bottled water sellers as to the sources of their water and whether it is purified or has been tested for contaminants. According to a recent survey by the group, 18 percent of the 173 bottled waters on the U.S. market today fail to list the location of their source; a third disclose nothing about the treatment or purity of the water inside their plastic bottles.

“Among the ten best-selling brands, nine—Pepsi’s Aquafina, Coca-Cola’s Dasani, Crystal Geyser and six of seven Nestlé brands—don’t answer at least one of those questions,” reports EWG. Only Nestlé’s Pure Life Purified Water “discloses its specific geographic water source and treatment method…and offers an 800-number, website or mailing address where consumers can request a water quality test report.”

EWG recommends that consumer resist the urge to buy bottled water and go instead for filtered tap water. “You'll save money, drink water that’s purer than tap water and help solve the global glut of plastic bottles,” the group advises, adding that it supports stronger federal standards to enforce consumers’ right to know about what’s in their bottled water besides water. Until that day comes, concerned consumes should check out EWG’s Bottled Water Scorecard, a free website that provides information on various bottled water brands, where they originate and whether and how they are treated to remove contaminants.

CONTACTS: Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org; The Beverage Marketing Association, www.beveragemarketing.com; EPI, www.earth-policy.org; EWG, www.ewg.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that Congress passed legislation not too long ago that protected a few million acres of wilderness areas, parks and wild rivers, in part to help offset climate change. How does conserving land prevent global warming? -- M. Oakes, Charlottesville, NC

The legislation in question is called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. It was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama in the spring of 2009. The Act protects some two million acres outright as wilderness in nine different states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia) and requires the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize conservation on another 26 million acres of mostly Western lands. The bill also established three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, over 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails.

With provisions appealing to sportsmen and conservationists alike, the bill enjoyed broad support; drafters took into account requests from dozens of constituent groups in putting together the legislation. As such, it is one of the most significant expansions of U.S. wilderness protection in the past quarter century. “This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share,” President Obama said upon signing the bill into law.

While the law doesn’t specifically address global warming in its language, environmentalists are overjoyed at the climate benefits that protecting so much land will bring. “Our forests store vast amounts of carbon in tree trunks, roots, leaves, dead wood and soils—a service that is becoming ever more essential as the threat of global climate change mounts due to the buildup of human-generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” reports the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

Plants and trees utilize ground-level carbon dioxide as building blocks in photosynthesis. The more flora we leave growing naturally on the ground, the more greenhouse gas we can store (or “sequester”) there and prevent from drifting on up to the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming.

“Although investments in energy efficiency and clean energy will provide the only permanent solutions to climate change, forest sequestration can buy us time to develop those alternatives,” says the Wilderness Society, adding that American forests currently capture the equivalent of about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases put out by U.S. cars, factories and other sources. In addition, forests provide other key environmental benefits such as cleansing our air and water.

In the absence of binding legislation mandating stricter carbon emissions standards, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, given the climate-related benefits of land conservation, may well be the most significant global warming bill Congress has passed to date. And environmentalists might have to take what they can get: With Republicans now in control of the House and gaining ground in the Senate, dedicated climate legislation may be even more elusive than analysts thought even a year ago.

CONTACTS: Bureau of Land Management, www.blm.gov; Wilderness Society, www.wilderness.org; Omnibus Public Land Management Act, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-146.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What specific issues and protections are covered by the Food Safety Modernization Act recently signed into law? -- P. Palmerino, New York, NY

Existing laws and oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have done a decent job of keeping the vast majority of Americans safe from food borne illnesses, but several recent cases of contamination have put the spotlight on what more we can do to protect ourselves from unwittingly consuming harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and toxins that could be lurking on our dinner plates.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, of the 48 million Americans afflicted with some sort of food borne illness every year, 128,000 are hospitalized and about 3,000 die. In response to this growing problem, in January 2011 Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a comprehensive $1.4 billion bill that aims to stop outbreaks of food borne illnesses before they begin.

“This law makes everyone responsible and accountable at each step in today's global food supply chain,” reports FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. “This law represents a sea change for food safety in America, bringing a new focus on prevention, and I expect that in the coming years it will have a dramatic and positive effect on the safety of the food supply.”

FDA inspectors have monitored domestic producers of seafood, juice, meat, eggs and poultry for decades, but the new law expands their powers to evaluate hazards in all kinds of food and to impose stricter standards on imported foods. Processors are now required to proactively take measures to prevent contamination, and must have plans in place for corrective action when something does go wrong. Smaller producers are exempt from some of the more onerous and costly provisions of the new law, but are nevertheless still responsible for maintaining the strict health safety standards set forth in its provisions. The new law also increases the number and frequency of inspections at both high-risk and non-high risk facilities. And the FDA can now order recalls of tainted foods; before FSMA’s enactment, the agency could only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls.

Given that some 15 percent of our food supply—including 60 percent of fresh fruits and 80 percent of seafood—is imported, the new law also requires importers to verify the safety of food from their foreign suppliers and authorizes the FDA to block foods from facilities or countries that refuse inspections.

FSMA also provides funds for training, equipment and facilities at food safety agencies across federal, state, local, territorial, tribal and even foreign jurisdictions to ensure that all parties are up to snuff on the ways and means of preventing and containing food borne illnesses.

“Really this is a major victory for every American who will sit down at the dinner table and have more confidence that their food is going to be safe,” says Erik Olson of the Pew Health Group, one the most vocal of hundreds of nonprofits in favor of strengthening our nation’s food safety net.

CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov; CDC, www.cdc.gov; Pew Health Group, www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_category.aspx?id=184.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Instances of people with thyroid problems seems to be on the rise. Is there an environmental connection? -- Dora Light, Waukesha, WI

The American Cancer Society reports that thyroid cancer is one of the few cancers that have been on the rise in recent decades, with cases increasing six percent annually since 1997. Many researchers, however, attribute these increases to our having simply gotten better at detection. Regardless, exposures to stress, radiation and pollutants have been known to increase a person’s risk of developing thyroid problems.

Thyroid disease takes two primary forms. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much of the T3 and T4 hormones that regulate metabolism. This can cause a racing heart, weight loss, insomnia and other problems. In cases of hypothyroidism, the body produces too few hormones, so we feel fatigued and may gain weight, among other symptoms. According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), many people with thyroid problems don’t realize it, as symptoms can be mistaken for other problems or attributed to lack of sleep. Thyroid problems in children can delay or impair neurological development.

Doctors are not sure why some people are prone to thyroid disease while others aren’t, but genetics has much to do with it. One recent UCLA study found that genetic background accounts for about 70 percent of the risk. However, researchers have begun to find links between increased risk of thyroid disease and exposure to certain chemicals, especially among women. “Pesticide Use and Thyroid Disease among Women in the Agricultural Health Study,” published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2002, found that
Iowa and North Carolina women married to men using such pesticides as aldrin, DDT and lindane were at much higher risk of developing thyroid disease than women in non-agricultural areas. According to Dr. Whitney S. Goldner, lead researcher on the study, 12.5 percent of the 16,500 wives evaluated developed thyroid disease compared to between one and eight percent in the general population.

It’s not just farm women who should worry. Trace amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers most certainly end up in some of the food we eat. The nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides warns that some 60 percent of pesticides used today have been shown to affect the thyroid gland’s production of T3 and T4 hormones. Commercially available insecticides and fungicides have also been implicated.

Likewise, some chemicals used in plastics and flame retardants contain toxins shown to trigger thyroid problems in those genetically predisposed. And a 2007 study at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio found that triclosan, an anti-bacterial agent found in everything from hand soaps to facial tissues to toys—it’s present in the bloodstreams of three out of every four Americans—could be causing some mothers’ thyroid glands to send signals to fetuses that may in turn contribute to autism.

An increasing number of doctors now believe that hypothyroidism could be precipitated by a dietary deficiency in iodine, a trace element found in the thyroid’s T3 and T4 hormones and essential in small amounts for good health. Besides eating more seafood, switching to iodized salt and/or taking iodine supplements can boost iodine intake without the need for medications. But too much iodine is not healthy, so always consult with your doctor before embarking on any new health or diet regimen.

CONTACTS: ATA, www.thyroid.org; Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that, among mining’s other problems, like providing climate-warming coal and endangering miners’ lives, it is also a serious water polluter. Can you enlighten? -- Richard Moeller, Salt Lake City, UT

Mining disasters have grabbed a lot of headlines of late, but mines pose another insidious threat that tends to get little press attention: pollution of the nearby environment which, in turn, threatens the health of the people who live nearby. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about water pollution from mines.

Mining operations use large amounts of fresh water to process recovered ore; the resulting mine effluent is typically a stew of hazardous acid-generating sulphides, toxic heavy metals, waste rock impoundments and water—and it is often deposited nearby in large free-draining piles where it can pollute land and water supplies for decades to come. When this waste water drains into local streams and aquifers, it can kill living organisms and render formerly pristine local waters unsafe to swim in or drink.

Increased soil erosion around mines also leads to excessive sedimentation of nearby waterways. This reduces the productivity of fisheries while limiting the availability of irrigation sources.

“Mining by its nature consumes, diverts and can seriously pollute water resources,” reports the nonprofit Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SWDF). “…mining has become more mechanized and therefore able to handle more rock and ore material than ever before,” reports SWDF. “Therefore, mine waste has multiplied enormously.” The group warns that “as mine technologies are developed to make it more profitable to mine low grade ore, even more waste will be generated in the future.”

Here in the U.S., increasing recognition of the water (and other types of) pollution problems caused by various forms of mining led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue much more stringent guidelines in April 2010 regarding how and where mines on American soil must dispose of waste.

In January 2011 the EPA got the opportunity to walk its talk when it vetoed a permit that would have allowed the largest “mountaintop removal” mining operation in the history of
West Virginia coal mining to go forward. Mountaintop removal is an aggressive form of coal mining that strips a mountain bare of vegetation and then blasts off the top of the mountain with explosives. It is the most destructive and polluting form of mining. Environmentalists praised the EPA for not only standing up to industry but also for saving some 2,000 forested mountaintop acres and nearly seven miles of riparian habitat while sparing surrounding communities from the effects of polluted land and water.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have been pushing Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill first introduced in 2009 that aims to protect fresh water supplies from mining contamination by sharply curtailing mountaintop removal. Green groups including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club are lobbying Congress heavily to consider the bill sooner rather than later.

CONTACTS: SDWF, www.safewater.org; Appalachian Voices, www.appvoices.org; Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, www.kftc.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Recent news reports have revealed the discovery of previously unknown species inhabiting the deepest parts of our oceans. Is anything being done to protect this habitat before humans have a chance to fish it to death or otherwise destroy it? -- Matthew Polk,
Gary, IN

Unfortunately it may already be too late for some of the deep sea’s undiscovered life forms. Advances in so-called “bottom trawling” technology in recent years has meant that fishing boats now have unprecedented access to deep ocean habitats and the sea floor itself where untold numbers of unknown species have been making a living for eons. Scientists speculate that upwards of 10 million different species may inhabit the deep sea. This is biodiversity comparable to the world’s richest tropical rainforests.

The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a group of more than 50 environmental and other groups dedicated to protecting cold-water corals and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems, reports that trawlers today are capable of fishing deep sea canyons and rough seafloors that were once avoided for fear of damaging nets. “To capture one or two target commercial species, deep-sea bottom trawl fishing vessels drag huge nets armed with steel plates and heavy rollers across the seabed, plowing up and pulverizing everything in their path,” the coalition reports. In addition, adds DSCC, large quantities of coral and unwanted fish species are hauled up only to be thrown back dead or dying. Indeed, the result of a few hours of trawling can be the destruction of fragile deep-sea habitats, such as delicate coral and sponge communities, that may have taken centuries to grow and thrive.

Bottom trawling also stirs up the sediment at the bottom of the sea. The resulting undersea plumes of “suspended solids” can drift with the current for tens of miles from the source of the trawling, introducing turbidity throughout the water that inhibits the transfer of light down to the depths where it is needed for photosynthesis in plankton, sea kelp and other undersea plants that serve as the basis for the marine food chain. Also, ocean sediments serve as natural safe resting places for many persistent organic pollutants (such as DDT and PCBs). Dredging these sediments up effectively reintroduces such toxins into the water where they are unwittingly absorbed and consumed by the fish we eat and other marine life already trying to cope with otherwise compromised undersea habitats. The sediment plumes also reintroduce nutrient solids from agricultural and other practices, increasing demand for oxygen in the water (causing algae blooms) and contributing to the outbreak of ocean “dead zones” devoid of marine life.

What can be done? For its part, the United States has banned bottom trawling in its offshore jurisdictions, but the practice continues mostly unabated throughout Europe and out on the world’s high seas. DSCC has gotten upwards of 1,400 marine scientists from 69 different countries to sign onto a statement expressing profound concern “that human activities, particularly bottom trawling, are causing unprecedented damage to the deep-sea coral and sponge communities on continental plateaus and slopes, and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges.” The statement calls on governments and the United Nations to adopt a short-term global moratorium on deep sea bottom trawling to try to provide immediate protection to the mostly undiscovered biodiversity of deep sea ecosystems while governments hash out longer term conservation and management regimes. In the meantime, bottom trawling continues unabated in sensitive areas of the North Atlantic and elsewhere, harvesting now for us what our grandchildren may never know.

CONTACT: DSCC, www.savethehighseas.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: The World Bank is often cast in a bad light by green groups and in the press. What are their eco-crimes, and are there any reforms in the making? -- J. Bloch, Newark, NJ

Originally created to finance the rebuilding of Europe after World War II, the World Bank later took on a larger mandate to try to alleviate poverty around the world. Unfortunately, many of the Bank’s policies and practices in intervening years clashed with conservation priorities. But the more recent onslaught of global warming threats, along with greater overall public environmental awareness, has forced the World Bank to factor sustainability concerns into how it encourages development moving forward.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a non-profit think tank, the World Bank has been widely criticized for funding a series of environmentally damaging projects in the 1980s, including the building of dams on the
Narmada River in India, road building into the Brazilian Amazon and transmigration (re-settlement) efforts in Indonesia. “These projects have led to a variety of adverse impacts in borrower countries, including deforestation and displacement of indigenous peoples,” reports the group.

In response to the criticism, the World Bank adopted a set of policies and procedures in the late 1980s to better assess the potential adverse environmental impacts of its projects. The Bank further developed a series of polices to guide investment in such areas as forestry and energy. “For example, the bank’s forestry policy prohibits the institution from financing logging in primary tropical forests,” adds IPS.

Other highlights of the Bank’s first round of greening included the creation of a special unit to oversee environmentally and socially sustainable development, and the recruitment of staff with technical environmental credentials to supplement its professional core of economists. IPS reports that with these changes in place, the bank has been able to start developing a portfolio of environment-sector projects “ranging from support for national environmental agencies to investments in national parks.”

But an independent internal review of the World Bank’s sustainability impacts between 1990 and 2007 found that even these new sustainability-oriented policies fell flat. Researchers found that the bank’s private-sector funding arm, the International Finance Corporation, was still promoting the expansion of livestock herds, soybean fields and palm oil plantations—all which accelerated deforestation in the tropics, hastening the pace of climate change for the rest of us.

“They need to begin to see the inextricable link between sustaining environment and reducing poverty,” said Vinod Thomas, director of the World Bank group that performed the review. “It is clear now from the Amazon to
India that if environmental sustainability is not raised as a priority, then all bets are off.”

The World Bank tried to address many of these concerns with the release of a beefed up Environment Strategy in 2001, but analysts remain critical of the organization’s performance and general commitment to sustainability. In June 2011 the World Bank will release a new Environment Strategy which it will use as a sustainability roadmap for its projects over the coming decade. The focus of the Bank’s sustainability work will be mitigating climate change through the promotion of clean energy technologies.

CONTACTS: World Bank, www.worldbank.org; Institute for Policy Studies, www.ips-dc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand a recent government report concluded that our global food system is in deep trouble, that roughly two billion people are hungry or undernourished while another billion are over consuming to the point of obesity. What’s going on? -- Ellie Francoeur,
Baton Rouge, LA

The report in question, the Global Farming & Futures Report, synthesized findings collected from more than 400 scientists spanning 34 countries, and was published in January 2011 by the British government’s Department for Business Innovation & Skills. Its troubling bottom line conclusion is that the world’s existing food system is failing half of the people on the planet.

Economic inequality among nations and other factors have contributed to a global food system whereby a billion people are hungry (lacking access to sufficient amounts of macronutrients, e.g. carbohydrates, fats and proteins), another billion suffer from “hidden hunger” (lacking crucial vitamins and minerals from their diet), while yet another billion are “substantially over-consuming” (spawning a new public health epidemic involving chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and widespread cardiovascular disease).

The report, which was prepared by the research firm Foresight on behalf of the British government, also predicts that the cost of food worldwide will rise sharply in coming decades, increasing the likelihood of food-based conflicts and migration, and that people won’t be able to feed themselves without destroying the planet—unless we can transform the global food system on the scale of the industrial revolution.

“The global food system is spectacularly bad at tackling hunger or at holding itself to account,” Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies and an author of the report, told the
UK’s Guardian. The report warns that an expanding world population that is already overexploiting its natural resources is a recipe for disaster, especially given the onset of climate change.

“Farmers have to grow more food at less cost to the environment,” said Caroline Spelman of the
UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which commissioned the report. That may sound simple, but many factors determine if production of a given food is economically viable.

Fixing the global food system will be no small task. Fundamental will be the spreading of existing knowledge and technology to the developing world to boost yields. Other keys to such an endeavor include dramatically reducing food waste—Americans toss as much as 40 percent of their food—especially since food production and distribution accounts for as much as a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Also, researchers suggest that investing in genetically modified crops and cloned livestock, despite the potential risks, may be “essential in light of the magnitude of the challenges.”

What can those of us in developed nations do? Staying active and eating right is the best way to prevent obesity and ensuing health problems. And choosing locally produced food over that which is shipped in from far away will help reduce our food’s carbon footprint. Also, support the efforts of groups working to end hunger and malnutrition in poor countries. If nothing else, those who wish to help feed the hungry can set their web browsers’ home page to The Hunger Site and click on a button there once a day which triggers a donation of food from one of a number of sponsors to needy people in developing countries.

UK Department for Business Innovation & Skills, www.bis.gov.uk; DEFRA, www.defra.gov.uk; The Hunger Site, www.thehungersite.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: So, what’s the story: Is it good that we have fluoride in our tap water or not? I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions over the years. -- Benjamin P.,
Mission, KS

The debate over whether we should add fluoride to public drinking water has raged since the 1940s when American cities first initiated the practice as a way to fight the scourge of tooth decay. The benefits of more research and hindsight in recent years have led many policymakers to reconsider the merits of so-called artificial fluoridation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that today over 60 percent of Americans get fluoridated drinking water from their taps whether they want it or not.

Critics of the practice worry that we are exposing ourselves to much more fluoride—which can be problematic in the extreme—than is necessary to fight tooth decay. After all, some fluoride, which is a naturally occurring mineral, finds its way into food and drinking water, typically in low concentrations, without human intervention. And most of us, kids included, use fluoride toothpaste twice a day.

So what’s the risk, anyway? According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), over-exposure to fluoride can be toxic, causing dental fluorosis (mottling and loss of tooth enamel) and skeletal fluorosis (joint pain, stiffness and bone fractures). “Some studies point to a possible link between fluoride exposure and osteosarcoma (bone cancer), neurotoxicity and disruption of thyroid function,” says EWG.

Proponents of fluoridation argue that the benefits of adding it to drinking water far outweigh any potential risks. Various studies have shown that fluoridating drinking water can indeed lead to as much as a 40 percent reduction in cavities in populations of both kids and adults. But studies in other areas that do not artificially fluoridate—such as throughout most of Europe—have shown similar improvements in recent decades, perhaps thanks to increased attention to teeth by family and school health care practitioners.

Regardless, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced a lowering of the maximum recommended fluoride level for municipal water from 1.2 milligrams per liter to 0.7.

“We’ve had to wait too long, but the government’s announcement marks a belated recognition that many American children are at risk from excess fluoride in drinking water and other sources,” says EWG’s Jane Houlihan. “HHS has taken an important first step. Now it’s up to water utilities to respond and for the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to lower its too-high legal limit on fluoride in drinking water, which is more than five times the new maximum being recommended by the [HHS].”

You can check if your water is fluoridated, and if so, how much, via the CDC’s My Water’s Fluoride website. If it is, you can also invest in a filter that removes it. However, they are not cheap: Countertop water distillers go for $200 and up, and an activated alumina defluoridation filter—most come in cartridge form and can be placed in-line under counters—are costly, too, and need to be changed out frequently. FilterWater.com, among other sources, has a wide range of choices available for sale. Unfortunately, the most popular and less expensive home water filters, like those from Pur and Brita, do not remove fluoride.

CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org; CDC My Water’s Fluoride, http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/MWF; FilterWater.com’s Fluoride Water Filters,www.filterwater.com/s-4-fluoride-filters.aspx.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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